Saturday, September 06, 2008

Training - Rollers

Mention the word to a less than experienced racer (or non-racer), and even the most eager ones will hesitate as best. More cautious ones may even step back, raising their hands up like, "No, no, not for me."

Is this the Lottery? What sort of insidious torture device causes such a reaction?


Rollers are a simple device with three cylinders, mounted in parallel on a simple frame, with a loop of plastic-y rubber connecting two of them together.

Like any other slightly misunderstood concept, the device has sprouted various mythical properties.

"First time I ever rode them I flew off the front and almost went through the wall and ended up in the living room!"

"A friend of mine fell over 10 times in 10 minutes!"

"I know one guy who rode off the side and shot forward when his tires hit the rug!"

Yada yada yada.

Rollers are rare enough that they generate such stories. Unfortunately, many of them are not true.

In fact, unless one rides with flywheels for bike wheels, many of the "sudden acceleration" stories are physically impossible. Normal bike wheels have very little inertia, even factoring in the weight of moving legs and such. Riding off the edge of the rollers will result in a spectacular skid mark, a foot or two of total movement, and maybe a topple over.

Is it possible to fall over 10 times in 10 minutes?

Well, yes, technically it is possible. In fact it's possible to fall over 10 times in 10 minutes when you're riding your bike down the street. The reality is that after falling over once, it'll take much longer than a minute to unclip, get back up, untangle oneself from the bike, and get back on it and going again.

Plus, from what I've seen, people learning to ride rollers almost never fall - they're too scared, too cautious, and as a result they rarely fall. I think it's like riding motorcycles - apparently on motorcycles the most accidents occur after the first six months of motorcycle riding. That's when you start becoming confident in your motorcycling abilities, ride a bit closer to the edge of the envelope, and make a mistake. Rollers are similar - you typically fall off after you've decided you know how to ride them, not while you're learning.

Rollers are helpful for a few things - form, spin, and "checks".

Except for motion type rollers, the devices prevent your bike from moving in a normal fore-aft manner relative to your body. This amplifies problems with your pedal stroke anomalies and makes even a smooth rider look a bit rough.

So why doesn't everyone ride rollers?

The biggest disadvantage is that rollers that work on form offer very little in terms of strength conditioning. It's all form, no fitness.

Okay, okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but it's closer to the truth than not. After a ride on rollers, many riders will wonder how they could possibly sweat as much as they did - rollers seems to bring out the sweat, much like a trainer, but even more so.

Your legs won't feel too bad though, and after a good night's sleep, you'll be ready to do some hard riding. The only exception is when you first get on rollers - then the next day will be an exploration of muscles you haven't used at lower rpms.

Saturday I wanted to test out a wheel I'd just built, and since I hadn't been on my bike in a while, I decided to ride the rollers. I haven't ridden them in a while so it was a bit awkward getting on the bike, but once under way things felt somewhat familiar.

Well, familiar if I was a rider who couldn't hold a straight line to save his life.

To refresh, this is how one ought to set up and ride their rollers:
1. The front roller should be just in front of the front axle when the bike is sitting on the rollers. Okay, I don't know if that's true, but that's how I set it up. If I put the roller behind the front axle, I end up riding off the front of the rollers.
2. You should have an extremely stable step stool that is about a foot tall, non-slip, and shin-friendly. I've never found anything resembling all of the above - usually you have to skip "shin friendly". I include "shin friendly" that criteria since I have hit my shins enough times on my various stools, chairs, radiators, etc., that I want to include it.
3. You should have a "handlebar plus roller" height hand hold that is stable, easy to grip, and won't topple over. Again, I rarely find something that tall that won't topple over, and if I do, it won't reach over my step stool.
4. A good trick is to set up in a hallway or a door way. I prefer hallway - if you start to topple, you can't miss the wall. In a doorway you can miss the doorway and end up with your handl flying past the doorway, your head or shoulder not getting as far.
5. Start in a bigger gear (big ring, middle cog). You need the wheels to spin fast to balance easier.
6. Hold the bars near the stem. Most stable when riding one handed, and you'll be hanging onto your taller hand hold (#3 above) regularly.
7. Have a fan pushing air across your face.
8. Unless you are experienced, do not have bike videos playing in front of you. You'll end up falling over.
9. Optional - have music going in the background.
10. After 15 minutes, stand up, coast, and reset your "chamois clock". You can hold onto something (I almost always do). If you don't do this your roller ride will end in numbness 30-40 minutes into your session.

The bike is sitting on the rollers. They seem pretty harmless, right? Note lack of step stool.

My bar-height handhold ended up being the spin bike bars next to me. Note cap (for sweat), towel (sweat also). You can see how the bike sits on the rollers. The little band connecting the middle roller to the front one is key.

A problem with my rollers is that I'm now missing two critical nuts. The rollers did a split on me and dumped the two rollers pictured onto the mat below. I had to put a foot down. Since I now work at a hardware store, I'll get some hardware and fix this problem.

Music and the best earphones for trainer use I've ever tried.

What Tiger thinks of rollers. The cats dislike rollers, trainers, etc.

I don't have a step stool, my step is a slippery hard metal frame (not shin friendly). However, to make up for it, I have a solid handhold - my spin bike. I have music and a fan too. But it all comes down to pedaling, and when I started to pedal, I felt like my feet were moving in squares.

I had to relearn how to pedal. Again.

Such "relearning" is necessary after a break from rollers, and I've found the following helpful in overcoming newly discovered poor form.

1. Make sure you are reasonably stable on rollers. Confidence you will not ride off the edge of the contraption should be at least 50-60% but does not need to be higher than 80%.
2. Warm up a bit. Stiff muscles won't work well for the next two steps.
3. Maintain a comfortable cadence. Start in the big ring, smaller cog, to get the giro effect of the wheels - it's easier to balance etc. Then, as you get more comfortable, shift into easier gears. Your cadence will naturally increase to keep up with the wheels.
4. Steadily increase your cadence until you are on the edge of control. You may have to clench muscles to hold yourself in place, but that's okay. You want to be able to keep a stable platform while spinning quickly.
5. Coast when you can't pedal comfortably anymore, shift down, and start pedaling again.

Presto, you should be going 3-10 rpms faster.

Repeast until you are at 100-120 rpms consistently, preferably closer to the 120 range.

My initial ride started out with me averaging about 100-105 rpms for decent stretches at a time, with pauses to rest, reset the "chamois clock".

Within ten minutes I'd done a "spin up" to 134 rpms, then eased to a much slower cadence - about 108 rpms. I felt a lot smoother so I did a few more spin ups - to 157 rpms, 132 rpms, and 153 rpms. Each spin up took about 90 seconds, starting at 105-110 rpms and steadily increasing rpms over that time.

By the end of my roller session I was comfortably and smoothly maintaining 105-110 rpms, and I could do some "few minute" efforts at 120 rpms. Nothing like my youthful "120 rpms for an hour" but acceptable for now. Ultimately, after a one-plus hour workout, my average cadence ended up 103 rpms, including all my starts, stops, coasts, and recovering from spinups.

The next day I had to cut my session short. My legs were a bit sore (I hadn't done so much spinning in a while), my feet were swollen (I started eating pasta again and my feet get a bit swollen when I do that), and I was plain tired.

And I kind of fell off the bike while I was getting on the rollers.

But we'll leave that alone for now.

Suffice it to say that I rediscovered rollers, want to ride them more, want a shin friendly step stool, and want to maintain some consistent roller riding so I don't have to relearn how to ride them every month or three.


mattio said...

i just moved in to a household with rollers, and have played with them a few times - i plan on spending more serious time with them in a few more months.

i did find, however, that having something playing on my computer in front of me (olympic points race) was very helpful. the less i thought about my bike and the more i focused on stuff in front of me and let myself get relaxed, the better, smoother, and more comfortable my rollerriding was.

but, i'm sure, many people have different experiences.

Anonymous said...

I agree w/Casual Entropy in so far as it's best to focus on something else - I focus on an imaginary distant point. Helps a lot. But I *love* rollers - once I got the hang of them. And they're an ideal way to inject some variety into long winter indoor training sessions too!

Aki said...

CE, SOC - I realized that I listen to music but prefer to focus my eyes on the rollers, tire, and a point just in front of the bike. I tend to get really into whatever videos I'm watching, and I've toppled over on a trainer (a CycleOps - the most stable one out there) while watching guys bomb down a descent in the Giro. So, for me, no videos while riding rollers.

CE, you're right in that focusing on other things will help you relax, get smoother, and spin faster. I've gotten to the point where I use plain old "mind wandering" to accomplish this "zen state" of roller riding. In other words I don't really think of anything at all, just pedaling.

Mike said...

I had been riding rollers a lot before going on a bike tour this past summer and it seemed to help my spin a lot. I noticed more from the other people in my group, whose back wheels tended to move back and forth on climbs while mine stayed pretty steady.

Aki, I had been wondering about why my saddle seemed so uncomfortable on the rollers, thanks for clearing that up. I was just assuming it only happened to me. I'll have to do the 'chamois break' more often.

Anonymous said...

Did you by any chance have your powermeter on when you were on your rollers? I am curious about the lack of resistance when on mine. I too sweat alot riding them.

Aki said...

hocam - the saddle break thing was something I had to figure out by experiencing total numbness first, then by asking others what they did, and then learning it was a somewhat universal experience. When a euro-pro exclaimed that he got numb within 35 minutes but could ride 7+ hours at a time on the road fine I realized what was happening.

As an aside, when someone came into the bike shop and complained about the uncomfortable saddle, we'd ask "How often do you stand up?". The blank stare usually answered the question. We'd state, with experience on our side, that you'd go numb within 35 minutes if you never stood up, and the customer's eyes would light up in response.

Anon - power is low. I maintained about 160 watts for much of my roller session, averaging 143 watts overall. In a 53x11, averaging 110 rpm or so, I'd be doing maybe 220 watts.

In my spin-ups, the 39x11 @ 157 rpm was 297 watts max, the 52x11 @ 153 rpm was 438 watts max. This is well below a normal 600-1000 watt surge in the middle of a normal lap of a crit.

My goal is to build a free-motion adapter for the rollers, figure out some kind of resistance, and go from there.

Mike said...

Interesting, I don't normally have a problem on the road but I tend to stand on steeper grades.

For resistance, try putting a towel under one of the rollers so it rubs.

Aki said...

I have an old resistance unit that sits on the rear wheel. No flywheel though, so no "coasting". I'd like to figure out a flywheel + resistance type thing. By flywheel I'm talking 15-18 lbs like the spin bike has. But I'll settle for just plain resistance.